A Dining Experience panelists: McGee, Parton and Ratigan

A Dining Experience: Going Beyond Feeding and Eating

The final panel of HEALTHTAC Food and Beverage 2022 centered around ensuring a dining experience for residents. During the panel, which was titled “A Dining Experience: How Senior Living F&B Is Going Beyond Feeding and Eating,” the culinary executives discussed eating versus dining, innovation, trends and more.

“Feeding is where we were before in senior living, where it was just the option of the day—and if you didn’t like it, maybe you got a tuna sandwich as your alternate. There was no effort put into it,” said Tyler Ratigan, director of culinary operations at Ovation by Avamere. “But today, we’re seeing restaurants and display kitchens being built, and really creating an experience.”

Another panelist agreed. “Now we’re seeing ourselves as a restaurant/dining option, coming away from just trying to fulfill the basic need of having our residents fed and nutritionally complete,” said Natalie McGee, VP of resident engagement and experience at Milestone Retirement Communities. “To me, it’s the intentionality… Even changing titles and being intentional with word usage makes a difference.”

Thad Parton, corporate director of restaurant operations at Mather, spoke from personal experience regarding updating titles.

“New hires come in…and they seem to forget that they came out of the restaurant business,” Parton said. “So changing their titles gets them back into that mindset. You have to remind them [that]…just because we’re in a senior living community, doesn’t mean we’re [not] running restaurants… Residents can go out; they don’t have to dine with us. But we want to be their restaurant of choice.”

And that restaurant mentality is key.

Parton recently implemented a process of handing residents a check after their meal. But they’re not paying, so why do they need to see a check?

“We’re on a declining balance program [and] residents want to know what they spent on their meal,” he explained. “And you sign a check at a restaurant, right?… It shouldn’t be any different in our restaurants. They sign the check that says they saw what was spent and what’s left, and they agree with that.”

Part of the restaurant mentality also includes opening up the community’s restaurants to the public. Ratigan’s doing that with his fine dining restaurant.

“We’re trying to invite the public in,” he said. “We’re open three nights a week, and we get lots of outside people coming in.”

It’s also important for residents to have options. Parton’s community has a fine dining venue, an upscale casual restaurant, an all-day café and a coffee shop/bar lounge. “Being able to…choose from four restaurants every night for dinner—or every day for lunch or breakfast—is a big part of that restaurant-style experience,” he said.

Ratigan’s also trying to ensure a dining experience for his residents through non-traditional kitchen setups. “In one of our communities, we have a display kitchen—that’s out front with our pizza oven, induction burners and a whole bar setup. And our assisted livings are open kitchens where the residents are able to see the cooks,” Ratigan said. “[It’s about] putting the cooks out front with everybody to build a familiar face [and] so the residents know who their food is prepared by.”

However, some residents don’t feel comfortable eating in a restaurant or dining room yet.

For McGee’s residents that still prefer to get food delivered, she’s created a dining experience for them through plating, using china and good cutlery and making sure the food is still warm by the time it gets to them. “We’re trying to give them that in-room dining experience,” she said, “until they’re ready to come back and join us [in the dining room].”

The panelists also stressed that residents at all care levels should get a dining experience (and aren’t just fed).

“I feel like the further you go down the line, you always get forgotten about,” Ratigan began. “We should be elevating dining beyond independent living… Typically, in assisted living, memory care or long-term care, they’re paying more money, but maybe the food is worse. Try to elevate dining on all aspects. Don’t just focus on the shiny independent living venues that are being built—put forth effort into the rest of the continuum of care.”

McGee agreed. “The experience should be transferable between the different modes of living and different tiers,” she said. “What does dining look [like] for someone that’s going through the cognitive changes of memory decline?… Sometimes someone needs diced, pureed or thickened food; how can we accommodate that need, but still have an elevated experience for them?”

Panelists pose for a photo outside

From left to right: Caroline Chan (moderator), McGee, Ratigan and Parton

The panelists also discussed the innovative measures that they’re taking in their communities.

“I think of innovation as something new—something that your residents and teams haven’t seen before,” Parton said. His community has robots running food out to the dining room, and they’re about to implement hydroponic gardens.

To help residents who are visually impaired, Ratigan’s communities have plates with colored rings so those seniors can see the plate better, and they’re starting to add braille to their menus.

McGee’s looking at innovation not only for her residents, but also her employees.

One of her communities has a demo kitchen, and they’re going to try and use it to host a Food Network-style cooking show. “We’re going to have our residents cooking with our chefs, and we’re going to be recording and broadcasting it,” she explained. “Our residents are coming for fine dining—they’re paying for that and enjoying that service experience—but they [also might] come from years of cooking; some of them are still engaged in that way. So it’s about [finding] that balance.”

Her communities also hosted a Christmas bake-off in December, where their chefs could submit their best desserts.

“A lot of times we’re focusing on our residents (as we should), but our employees provide the experience and engagement, so it has to be in tandem. What are we doing on the resident side and on the employee side, and how can we have those two in a symbiotic relationship so they’re both getting recharged from each other?” she said. “Bring the employees into the experience for that engagement.”

Parton’s also been innovating for his employees in the form of a training program. The first level is required—in fact, that’s part of the onboarding process for new employees.

“We’re not recruiting seasoned servers/cooks anymore; to get people in the door, we’re willing to take people with less experience,” Parton said. “You have to get them up to speed as quickly as possible.”

However, if an employee takes and passes the optional levels two, three and/or four, they earn another $0.50 per hour. “Give your team members an incentive to engage in the system,” he said. “And [if] somebody’s incentivized to go through those levels…now, we’ve got our next lead cook/server/sous chef. There’s a clear career ladder for them to follow to prepare for the next big role.”

After all, the biggest thing he’s learned is continuous improvement.

“As a young line cook…I spent years cooking starches and vegetables, and I always tried to make today better than yesterday. How can I blanch those green beans better today than I did yesterday? It was a game with myself,” Parton said. “So I challenge my teams to think about how yesterday went, and how can I make today better?… The team members, residents and business [all] benefit from that mentality.”

While McGee agreed that improvement is important, she also emphasized making employees feel valued where they stand now.

“Sometimes our chefs are in the kitchen, they create a beautiful meal, it goes out [and] the servers get the kudos/feedback. I’m trying to build into the service process that in some way…every person that plays a part gets to feel and hear positive feedback,” McGee said. “[I’m] trying to build confidence and pride in employees, because when they’re getting that feedback and they feel good about their part…it will bring them back another day—and it will keep them wanting to come back… When they know that what they do matters—and they’re getting that feedback—that goes a long way.”

A Future of Dining Excellence panelists: Burrows, Calhoun, Watts and Lo

A Future of Dining Excellence

HEALTHTAC Food and Beverage’s second panel discussed what the future of dining will look like for senior living’s culinary departments; it was aptly titled “A Future of Dining Excellence.” The panel was moderated by Edward Lo, VP of sales and marketing at FullCount, and the culinary panelists talked about how they are (or aren’t) implementing things like online ordering, reservations and sustainability measures in their communities. The event was held last month at the National Doral in Miami, FL.

“We are very close to rolling out online ordering through our point-of-sale [system],” began Emily Watts, director of dining operations at Immanuel. “Make sure you’re smart about how you roll it out and the timing, because you don’t want [a system] where everyone can order 30 things at once.”

So her community is still figuring out how to time orders appropriately. But the demand is there; families are requesting it for their loved ones and health care partners are asking for it for their residents. “It’s something that we’ve been asked about a lot,” said Watts.

Another panelist’s communities are also using online ordering—but not for their residents.

“We’re looking at it more for our employees,” said Elizabeth Calhoun, operations manager for culinary services at Bishop Gadsden Retirement Communities. “We get probably 200 employees that come through our cafe [for] each meal, so we’re looking at how we would time that out (and help our chefs), knowing how many are coming in.”

But online ordering doesn’t work for every community. Another panelist considered implementing it, but he conducted a poll among the residents, and the results were clear.

“I think maybe 5% said they would use it,” said Elvis Burrows, director of dining services for The Mayflower at Winter Park. “But [now] we have a younger clientele coming in…so I’m looking to redo that poll and see how it goes. I know online ordering is going to be the future.”

However, his company has been doing reservations to control the flow of patrons. Burrows suggested that they expand the system so residents can make reservations up to a week in advance, instead of just on the day of.

“Operationally, it makes so much sense,” Burrows said. “It helps with our food quality, because now we’ve switched from serving cafeteria-style to scratch cooking/made-to-order food.”

Calhoun added that reservations can help with food costs, too.

“In our fine dining restaurant…we take reservations up to 30 days [prior], and we’re typically booked out about two weeks in advance,” she said. “It’s great for us…with food costs—we know exactly what we need to be bringing in and what we need to prep.”

They also recently implemented an online reservation system, instead of having residents call to do so. “Probably 80% of them [residents] are using the online platform,” Calhoun said. “It’s taken us a little while to teach them how to use it and get it going, but it’s working amazing for us.”

Burrows switched up the menu system at his communities, and that helped them with their food costs. Before he was hired, the menu would change every week, and then the cycle would repeat after five weeks.

“I thought that was a headache,” he said. “We switched to a weekly menu where the menu doesn’t change for the whole week, and then each day, we add a different feature—maybe Friday’s International Day, there’s a Sandwich Day, etc. That dropped our food costs about 40%.”

Panelists pose for a photo outside

From left to right: Burrows, Calhoun, Lo and Watts

The panelists also talked about what they’re doing in their communities from a sustainability standpoint.

“We’re going to have the new generation—the baby boomers—come in and have this expectation. ‘What do you mean you don’t recycle? You don’t do composting?’ They’re doing it in their homes,” Watts reasoned. So her company is working to coordinate/increase both their recycling and composting efforts.

Calhoun implemented a reusable box program in her communities. “They [residents] come in, we let them take it out, they eat out of it and then they bring that box back to us. Then we put it through all the systems that it needs to go through and circulate it again,” she said. “It was a little difficult for them to get used to it in the beginning, but now they love it; they’re very proud of it.”

In fact, her residents are now trying to figure out how to implement the same system with cups.

Burrows modified his communities’ points-based system, and that’s helped their sustainability efforts (and decreased resident stress). Now, instead of residents having 15 points to get as much as they can, eat what they want and then take the rest to go (which they might not end up eating anyways), they can spend their 15 points across multiple meals.

“We’ve lowered the portion sizes, and now that they can choose what they want, they don’t eat as much. They eat what they need to eat, and then they can save [the rest of] their points,” Burrows explained. “We were spending $20,000 a month in paper to-go products, and it’s dropped to about $7,000-$9,000. That was a huge savings—and a huge amount of paper and plastic not being used on to-go food.”

As for the next challenge in senior living dining?

“Our incoming residents—our baby boomer crowd—have different expectations than the residents we currently have,” Calhoun said. For example, while her current residents expect people to dress up for the fine dining restaurant, her new residents want to be able to have that same upscale dining experience, even if they just came off the croquet court.

“Recently, we changed the way we fold napkins at the table, and that was a big to-do. They don’t like change,” Watts added. “But we have to start [doing things like] put sushi on the menu, because we also have baby boomers trickling in, and they want to see what they saw at their local favorite hot spot.”

So senior living culinary departments are having to strike that balance between what the current residents are used to, and what the new residents expect.

“[It’s about] being more innovative in our ambiance, aesthetic and food, while not upsetting our current residents,” Watts said. “I think senior living is going to struggle with that, because you have two very different generations.”

The Culinary Programs of Today panelists: Fowler, Herzig, King and Moret

The Culinary Programs of Today

The COVID pandemic—and all of the issues that came along with it—no doubt had an effect on senior living’s culinary departments. That’s what was discussed during the recent HEALTHTAC Food and Beverage event’s first panel, entitled “The Culinary Programs of Today: What Senior Living F&B Looks Like Post-COVID.” The panelists discussed how recruiting and retaining staff has changed, how their culinary departments overcame supply chain issues and more.

“I think it’s always been a struggle to staff our communities, but this new landscape has definitely created an opportunity for us to rethink the way that we’re looking to recruit and hire,” said Andrew Moret, VP of culinary services at Oakmont Management Group.

Another panelist noted that applicants used to have to convince companies to hire them. “Now it seems like it’s flipped,” said Ryan King, VP of dining services at The Arbor Company. “As an industry, we need to sell ourselves to the employees.”

Steven Fowler, AVP of food and beverage at Vi Living, explained that his company is working on implementing a bonus program where servers can earn more money if they meet certain efficiency-related milestones.

“But I think more than all of those financial elements of retention, it’s about really connecting with new employees,” said Fowler. “Make sure they feel [like] part of the community.”

Moret’s working on that by educating his chefs to not just ask questions about employees’ availability and experience, but also really get to know them—ask them what they do in their free time, what music and movies they like, etc.

And make sure your employees feel like they add value to your community. “Part of the Gen Z mentality is they want to be part of the future of the organization; they want to feel like they’re playing a pivotal role,” Moret said. “Rather than blow them off or tell them to focus on peeling carrots or whatever they were hired to do, sit down with them and listen to them. Sometimes you pick up a gem…that ends up playing a bigger part in the daily operation.”

On the recruitment side of things, one panelist discussed how they’ve partnered with an organization to start employing people with disabilities. “They want to work, and the residents love interacting with them,” said Laureen Herzig, corporate director of culinary services at Discovery Senior Living, LLC.

And to that point, not all of the changes that resulted from the pandemic have been negative.

“One of the really great things that came out of the pandemic was a strong focus on mental health, especially amongst athletes, chefs[, etc.]—some [of the] more high-stress lifestyles,” Moret said. That prompted him to think about how he can be a better leader, cultivate better leadership in his company and create a healthy, growth-minded environment for his employees.

“My one big takeaway would be remember to breathe—and remind your teams to breathe…and take care of themselves,” Moret said. “Chefs have a tendency to knuckle down and grind through anything… Sometimes we need to advocate for them, because they’re not going to advocate for themselves.”

Herzig agreed, adding that she’s noticed that many of her communities don’t have a corporate-level advocate to speak up for them. “You have to be the voice of these people,” she said. “[It] doesn’t matter what department they’re in; be their voice.”

On the supply chain side of things, King talked about having backup vendors for your backup vendors; hopefully, that will allow you to continue to find the products that you need. Fowler added that he encouraged his chefs to look local when they were struggling to get their staple items through their national contracts.

However, the other two panelists really emphasized the importance of communication.

“It’s all about communicating,” Herzig began. “I had this conversation with a resident. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t get romaine lettuce in her Caesar salad, because it’s not a Caesar salad if it doesn’t have romaine (which I agree with). So I educated her on the importance of the supply chain and how it’s affecting our communities.”

It’s also helpful to look at your distributors’ product forecasts so you can predict what might be ahead, Moret noted.

“Then we can educate the residents: We’re not out of it because the chef didn’t order it or because we didn’t plan accordingly, we’re out of it because there was an avian flu, romaine E. coli outbreak or whatever the reason is,” he said. “And give your chefs the freedom and ability to own it and roll with it. And no matter what comes along…[let them] have the ability to make decisions on the fly.”

To that point, Herzig believes that creativity is part of being a chef. “We give our culinarians the autonomy to make decisions, and if you don’t have something, then you have to make an adjustment—just like a restaurant would,” she said.

For example: Fowler’s communities were having difficulty getting quality lamb chops during the pandemic—they were small, tough and didn’t travel well (the community was doing room deliveries). However, this was a weekly item. So they pivoted to sourcing and making a different type of lamb chop.

“So [we’re] still giving residents things they’re familiar with, but finding other ways to do it and still meet that satisfaction with a modification,” he said.

Fowler’s also noticed a shift towards residents preferring a fast-casual style of dining. Some residents (usually the ones that have been living in the community for a while) are “entrenched” in the formal restaurant and multi-course dinner mindset, but if you explain to them that they can get the same food—just presented in a simpler way—and they don’t have to make a reservation, they start to gravitate towards it.

“I think we’re going to pivot away from four-course meals. Now, it’s going to be something casual: You go down to the bar, order from the bartender and it’s brought out,” Fowler said. “It’s more like what’s happening in the world that we’ve all been experiencing for years. I think that’s going to be something that more of our new residents are going to want—and I think it’s going to be a lot more cost-efficient.”

However, all of this is dependent on your residents—and staff—wanting to return to the pre-pandemic dining ways.

“Not all of our communities are ready to return to pre-pandemic normals… Some of our residents are not fully comfortable going back to the community dining room, and some of our restaurants are not comfortable with guests coming in in large volumes to the communities. [In] other areas of the country/other communities, our residents are clamoring for more,” Fowler noted. “So it’s been about balance… It’s knowing what our residents and team members want, and trying to find the safest ways forward.”

CEO Rob Liebreich

The CEO Series: Rob Liebreich, Goodwin Living

Goodwin Living, an Alexandria, VA-based senior living company, has three communities in Virginia that serve almost 2,500 residents—but it’s helped more than 10,000 older adults nationwide through its brain health programs, primarily StrongerMemory.

StrongerMemory was created by Rob Liebreich, Goodwin Living’s president and CEO, out of a determination to help his mother with her cognitive health struggles. The program is designed to help everyone—but especially those with cognitive impairment or early-stage dementia—improve their brain function and health.

Senior Living News: What is the StrongerMemory program? How does it work?

Rob Liebreich: Goodwin Living’s mission is to support, honor and uplift the lives of older adults and those who care for them. With the anticipated doubling of the 75+ population from 2020 to 2040, combined with the decrease in birthrates and a lack of potential workforce in our field, we will do well as a society to create ways for older adults to postpone the need for care for as long as possible.

StrongerMemory has real potential; it’s a brain health program that is rooted in research.

Two residents doing simple math exercises at a table together

Two residents working on completing simple math problems—one of the three components of StrongerMemory

The program works by engaging the prefrontal cortex of the brain by spending 20 to 30 minutes a day engaged in simple activities such as reading aloud, handwriting and completing simple math. A recent study performed by George Mason University showed that those who complete a 12-session course of the StrongerMemory curriculum may experience [a] statistically significant improvement in their cognitive abilities, with potentially tremendous improvement noted by those with mild cognitive impairment. The study also noted that these improvements were achieved without any downside.

SLN: I understand that your mother’s cognitive health was the inspiration behind StrongerMemory. Can you talk about that, as well as the development process for the program?

RL: In 2011, my mom (who was in her late 60s) started to repeat herself, forget her conversations and had moments of getting lost while driving in a familiar place. Testing showed that she was experiencing mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia, which does not have a cure. Though I had served in the field of aging services for nine years, I had no answers for her.

That was until 2012, when I came across research that indicated nursing home residents who engaged frequently in exercises that engaged the prefrontal cortex showed an improvement (or at least a plateauing) of their cognitive decline. This knowledge led my mom to start engaging daily for 20 to 30 minutes in reading aloud, handwriting and doing simple math.

Within a month of engaging in these new efforts, we noticed that my mom’s repetition, forgetfulness and getting lost in familiar places all seemed to go away. Now, 10 years later, she continues with these important daily habits and is actively engaged in playing and teaching bridge, enjoying mahjong and giving talks about her brain health journey.

While I was serving at Aegis Living in Seattle, a dear friend challenged me to find a way to take the experience of my mom and help others. At that time, I spent a year with a newly-established occupational therapist and former teacher; together, we created a curriculum that was friendly to older adults and used at an assisted living and memory care community, and the results were positive!

Several years later, I worked to create a brand-new curriculum called StrongerMemory that anyone could use, and we piloted it with a group of Goodwin Living residents and Goodwin Living At Home members. Yet again, we noted very positive results. So we sought out the leadership of Goodwin Living’s brain health director to help us advance the program and share it with even more people.

Liebreich and residents sitting around a table, talking

Liebreich leading a group of StrongerMemory participants in a weekly social check-in meeting

SLN: How does StrongerMemory benefit its participants—from those with no cognitive impairment, to those with mild cognitive impairment, to those with early to moderate dementia?

RL: StrongerMemory provides a curriculum that has no downsides and has shown its ability to positively impact brain health and delay the need for care associated with cognitive decline. In addition to support for better brain health, participants in StrongerMemory indicate that they enjoy a real uplift in their social connections, especially as the self-paced curriculum is tied together with a social check in once a week to help ensure continuous use.

SLN: What is the most rewarding/best part of the StrongerMemory program?

RL: I enjoy two amazing rewards from StrongerMemory. Personally, I enjoy seeing the positive impact my mom is making (by way of example) in the lives of others, who share stories of positive results almost daily. I also appreciate the absolute good created through the Goodwin Living Foundation through the generosity of its donors, who enable us to make this program available at no cost to anyone who wishes to use it.

SLN: What are your hopes for StrongerMemory’s future?

RL: There is no cure for dementia, but with a program like StrongerMemory, there is more hope. It is estimated that more than 10 million people are living in the United States with mild cognitive impairment. We would love to be able to support 100,000 of those individuals with this program by the end of 2023, and hopefully millions more in the future—including those impacted by long COVID, Parkinson’s and others who want to take action today to help their brain health and push off the need for care tomorrow.

WelcomeHome Software being used on a computer

The Technology Debate: Generic Software Vs. Senior Living-Specific Software

There are so many technology platforms out there that can help support senior living communities; some are tailored specifically to the senior living industry, while others are designed to be applicable to any field.

The question is, which one is better?

Cindy Longfellow headshot

Cindy Longfellow, vice president of business development, sales and marketing at Juniper Communities

“The primary benefit for us [with senior living-specific technology]…is that the language, terminology and process is informed by senior living, so the need for customization and configuration is lessened,” began Cindy Longfellow, vice president of business development, sales and marketing at Juniper Communities.

William Swearingen, SVP of sales and marketing for Spectrum Retirement Communities, agreed. He expressed that if a platform’s been designed for a standard sales process and then forced into senior living, it just doesn’t work.

William Swearingen headshot

William Swearingen, SVP of sales and marketing for Spectrum Retirement Communities

“[I] use the cliche ‘a square peg in a round hole,’” he said. “There are unique elements to the [senior living] business, and other platforms simply can’t meet the need.”

Longfellow summarized it well. “[Regarding] senior living-specific software, the primary benefit that we’ve seen is, yes, there’s always going to be configuration and customization, but the basic framework of those systems is informed by the senior living world,” she said.

However, there are some ways that generic platforms beat out senior living-specific ones.

“The challenge with senior-specific platforms is most of them have gotten way too narrow/siloed,” Swearingen started. “They put blinders on and have an inability to have growth and that evolutionary element.”

He continued on. “They’ll have minor evolution within the first few years, and then it’s like, “Well, that’s what we have; we’re built for senior living, so it is what it is,’” Swearingen elaborated. “It’s that belief that they’ve already answered all of the questions and they have nothing left to learn.”

He suggested finding a generic platform that has the “desire and willingness” to learn about the senior living industry and what makes that sales journey unique and different. Then, once you’ve found a platform like that, Swearingen said that you should challenge them to adapt their technology so that your senior living company can use 100% of the product—instead of just the, let’s say, 80% that you can currently access with the platform as is.

“If that platform is really looking to enter into the senior living space, they’re going to want to adapt that 20% that doesn’t work right now,” Swearingen added.

He explained that Invoca—a generic AI technology that handles phone numbers and phone calls—is a great example of this adaptability.

“One of the nice things that we’ve found working with Invoca is their willingness to structure their platform and make adaptations that are needed and requested by us,” said Swearingen. “We’re constantly meeting and talking with them…and they’re making the changes. It creates an opportunity for a true partnership that’s on an equal playing field—they learn things that help them maximize their programs for the future/other business models/other operators, and in turn, we get what we need.”

A Cubigo monitor in action

A Cubigo monitor being used at one of Juniper’s communities

On Juniper’s end, they employ a mix of generic and senior living-specific platforms. They use Cubigo (which is both senior living and hospitality-oriented) for their connections, dining and resident services; Linked Senior (which is senior living-specific) for connections and virtual activities and HubSpot (which is generic) to host their landing pages, email campaigns, internal and external newsletters, etc.

They also use PointClickCare (PCC) as their overall operating system, which they use for their clinical, quality and financial operations and more. “They grew out of skilled nursing and rehab,” Longfellow said. “But now, PCC is used pretty widespread across the senior living industry.” In fact, Juniper was one of PCC’s first assisted living customers back when the community first rolled the platform out in 2012.

And they initially used PCC as their sales operations customer relationship management (CRM) platform, too. “[But] in 2020, we really became aware that [the] system within PCC was not answering our needs in terms of managing to our sales process, so we went on the hunt for a new CRM platform,” Longfellow said.

And because the language/terminology aspect is so important (as she said earlier), Longfellow went with a senior living-specific platform that had tailored its wording—including in trigger fields and questions—to the industry. “All of that would have had to been customized, built and configured specifically in a non-senior living-focused piece of software,” she said.

She did consider HubSpot’s sales CRM platform—especially because Juniper was already using HubSpot’s marketing feature. “But their words and the language would have had to been reworked to be reflective of our [senior living] industry,” Longfellow concluded.

Ultimately, Juniper switched to WelcomeHome Software, which is a CRM platform that’s geared exclusively to senior living operators. John Lariccia, co-founder and CEO of WelcomeHome Software, explained that he did so because of senior living’s unique sales process.

John Lariccia headshot

John Lariccia, co-founder and CEO of WelcomeHome Software

For starters, with so many people involved per resident, the salesperson needs to know who to engage with and when. “[Additionally,] the timeline is highly volatile,” Lariccia said. “Plus, it’s an incredibly emotional decision—and, financially, it’s the largest decision that most families will collectively make.”

However, Lariccia said that it’s not always necessary to use a senior living-specific platform—take email, for example. But if the senior living process is distinctive—like with sales—then he said to use a senior living-specific one. “Why not use an industry-agnostic CRM?” he asked, referring to when the process is unique. “It doesn’t work. Yes, they’re a CRM and we’re a CRM, but theirs has to be so customized that you, as an operator, end up having to be a software developer to make it do what you want.”

Juniper rolled out WelcomeHome in January 2021. “No new tech rollout is ever 100% smooth,” Longfellow said. “But the initial data dump from PCC into WelcomeHome was pretty darn clean…and that set the stage to get it configured and working the way we wanted quickly.”

Swearingen also moved Spectrum to WelcomeHome, partially because they’re willing to adapt; he recalled that he had said earlier that most senior living-specific platforms don’t evolve. “WelcomeHome is an outlier… They’ve proven their adaptability and willingness to change and make the adjustments necessary to keep their platform evolving,” Swearingen said. “Their product line is evolutionary and matches what the consumer’s looking for from a data collection point and…from a sales perspective.”

However, they’re adaptable in part because generic platforms usually win on that front. “If you’re going with one of the largest [platforms], you’d hope that they have a larger development team that can innovate quicker,” Lariccia said. “Our goal is to minimize those tradeoffs and be as innovative as possible.”

Employees paying attention during a workforce development workshop

Acts Corporate University

Colleges across the nation are about to let their students out for winter break—and some of those students will be Acts Retirement-Life Communities employees who are participating in an Acts Corporate University (ACU) program.

ACU was created by Acts to help its employees. “ACU was founded in 2000, with the core mission of providing educational and personal development programs and lifelong learning opportunities for all employees,” explained Jo Anne Hartman, managing director of ACU. “[The] training and development activities offered through ACU are designed to enhance leadership/supervisory skills, support succession planning, encourage mentoring programs and provide certification/degree support.”

Jo Anne Hartman headshot

Jo Anne Hartman, managing director of ACU

She noted that over 1,500 people participate in the program each year—and for good reason.

“Many of the attendees of our leadership academies, collegiate cohorts and succession planning initiatives have been promoted through the years,” said Hartman.

Besides that, ACU also helps Acts track employee growth and advancement. “Supporting employees on their professional journey and witnessing the growth and advancement of employees we have supported through our various programs are all part of the reason we do what we do each and every day,” Hartman added.

One component of ACU is university partnerships; the program provides employees with tuition discounts if they attend one of the colleges that ACU partners with. (Hartman noted that the discounts vary by college.) Most of the schools are on the East Coast—which makes sense, since Acts is headquartered in Fort Washington, PA—however, there are also a few schools in the Midwest and on the West Coast.

ACU also has a tuition reimbursement program, where the amount provided depends on two factors: the type of degree that the employee is pursuing—a certificate, associate, bachelor’s or master’s—and whether they’re a full-time or part-time employee. Hartman clarified that for a staff member to be eligible for the full-time employee reimbursement amount, they have to have worked at Acts for at least one year.

The reimbursement amount increases for every degree level, with employees going for a certificate program receiving $1,500 annually, and those working towards a master’s degree receiving $6,000 annually. However, those amounts are for full-time employees; part-time workers are only eligible for half of the reimbursement amount.

Still, “over the course of the past 10 years, more than 700 employees have utilized tuition reimbursement,” Hartman said.

Additionally, ACU offers several scholarships to help Acts employees.

They have a culinary server scholarship, which servers become eligible for if they work a certain number of hours during two different time periods. “Servers can be awarded between $300–$500 and are eligible to receive up to two of these scholarships per year,” Hartman elaborated. “There is no application process—if the hour requirements are met, the employee is awarded the scholarship. We award about $300,000 per year.”

Additionally, they offer a high school senior scholarship, which awards $5,000 annually to four high school senior employees. The recipients are chosen based on a scholarship selection committee that reviews applications.

ACU also has a J. Mark Vanderbeck scholarship, which has been awarded to five employees thus far. “This scholarship was created to honor our former CEO who passed away unexpectedly several years ago,” Hartman said. “[It covers] 100% of trade school, college or graduate school tuition—with a maximum award of $10,000 annually per awardee—in a course of study directly supporting a career path within senior services.”

The program also offers an application-based scholarship to the children of Acts employees. This scholarship awards $15,000 annually, which is split among the scholarship selection committee-selected recipients. This year, $5,000 was awarded to one child and $1,000 was given to 10 other children, for a total of $15,000.

From an internal training standpoint, another one of ACU’s programs is their monthly workforce development workshops, which are available to all employees. “The workshops are typically one to two hours in length. These workshops are delivered live via Microsoft Teams; our trainers provide an interactive experience to the attendees,” said Hartman. “In addition, we will provide on-site trainings/workshops by request.”

Leadership Education and Development class (leadership program)

Many Acts employees attended the Leadership Education and Development classes, which is one of the ACU leadership programs

The training courses cover a wide range of topics, including implicit bias, professional communication, managing and leading a team, practicing gratitude, emotional intelligence, disagreeing agreeably and networking for success.

Additionally, ACU encompasses a number of other internal and external programs, such as team building, GED support, citizenship reimbursement, internships and more.

And during a time when many senior living communities are still facing labor and staffing issues, Hartman believes ACU helps Acts.

“While we do not have tangible data…we are confident that the benefits and programs provided by ACU have a positive impact on both recruitment efforts and retention rates across the organization,” she said.

Residents help check campers in at registration

Camp Waltonwood: An Intergenerational Experience

We’ve heard time and time again that it’s important to build and foster intergenerational relationships. It benefits everyone involved—from the young to the old. Waltonwood Communities decided to encourage these relationships through a fun, creative and engaging event: Camp Waltonwood.

Lindsay Charlefour headshot

Lindsay Charlefour, life enrichment director of Waltonwood Communities

“Camp Waltonwood is an annual, intergenerational community event that began in 2018 as a way to provide our residents the opportunity to invite their grand[children] and great-grandchildren to experience life at Waltonwood!” began Lindsay Charlefour, life enrichment director of Waltonwood Communities.

The event is open to all current residents, associates, their children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren ages 5-11 and their guardians, and it’s held at all 12 Waltonwood communities—located across Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia.

“Our company is family-centered and focuses on creating opportunities for families to come together in an engaging, supportive and fun-filled atmosphere,” Charlefour continued. “So many of our residents share fond memories of summer vacations, including camping, with their family. We want to ensure those traditions continue by bringing Camp Waltonwood to them!”

Each community decides on a theme—such as a safari, the outdoors or a luau—for their Camp Waltonwood event, and then they center the food and activities around that.

“The life enrichment, culinary and entire management team come together, leaving no detail behind, to create an incredibly special experience,” said Charlefour. “[We] are thrilled we are able to create such a memory-making experience for our residents and families.”

This summertime camp-inspired event didn’t happen the last couple of years (2020 and 2021) due to the pandemic, but this year, it was back in session.

Emilia Gnida headshot

Emilia Gnida, life enrichment director of Waltonwood Lakeside

“For our Camp Waltonwood, we focused on a pirate quest theme,” said Emilia Gnida, life enrichment director of Waltonwood Lakeside in Sterling Heights, MI. “We had sensory treasure boxes that the kids had to stick their hands in and identify items that they felt, a nautical rope tying class, an interactive picture station and crafts where they designed their own ‘Jolly Roger’ flag and parrots. We built a plank over one of the ponds in our courtyard so kids could walk the plank, a hoop throw onto pirate hooks and a bag toss to ‘sink the enemy ship.’”

A camper smiling as she "walks the plank"

Campers “walked the plank” at the pirate-themed Camp Waltonwood

Residents often get involved in organizing and leading their community’s event; that helps foster those intergenerational relationships.

“It’s important to us to get the residents just as involved in this event as the kids,” Gnida said. “Giving the residents a sense of purpose to help put on and run this program for the kids was empowering to them—and they participated in the whole process.”

Charlefour said that residents often help make decorations and put together goodie bags for the kids before the events. Then, during the event, “residents greet and register campers, host stations such as making trail mix, [doing] crafts and leading a sing-along by the campfire…and stamp passports as children complete each station,” she said.

A resident leading a camper in the arts and crafts activity

Residents lead campers in the arts and crafts activities, such as creating their own pirate flags and parrots

Gnida added that the residents at her community had fun hosting the activity stations at their Camp Waltonwood event. “Our residents really enjoyed leading the crafts, hoop throw, bag toss, sensory boxes and plank walk,” she said. “Our musically-talented residents played instruments for the children as well!”

Although the camp currently only lasts for a couple or few hours, Gnida noted that a longer event could be fun. “An overnight Camp Waltonwood for residents and their grandchildren would be an awesome addition to this event,” she said.

But she enjoyed seeing the event come together as is. “I genuinely had fun putting this event together,” she said. “The little details really made this event shine, and we were so proud of the outcome!”

And both she and Charlefour shared that they had fun seeing how much fun the residents and campers had at these events.

“The unspeakable joy that comes with spontaneous interaction between [the] residents and the campers gives me goosebumps every camp,” Charlefour said. “Those are the moments that are created naturally when people from age 2-102 are uninhibited and truly enjoying themselves.”

A resident and grandkid blowing bubbles together

Camp Waltonwood activities often lead to a lot of fun, intergenerational moments between residents and their grandkids

Gnida agreed. “My favorite part of Camp Waltonwood is seeing the…kids’ faces as they run around to each station, creating lifelong memories with their grandparents—and in turn, the grandparents’ reaction to the kids having a great time. Being able to witness that is a joy, and the residents cherish every moment,” she said. “Waltonwood is all about family and we want to foster those special moments as much as possible.”

Smiling resident holding a cruise ticket and passport

A Virtual Cruise Around the World

Travel is a fun way to see other parts of the world, discover different cultures and traditions, try new food and more. Cambridge Enhanced Senior Living decided to simulate the experience of travel through decorations, food and activities, and took its residents on a weeklong virtual cruise back in mid-September in celebration of National Assisted Living Week.

Kathleen Leypoldt headshot

Kathleen Leypoldt, executive director of Cambridge Enhanced Senior Living

“A virtual cruise gave our residents the ability to visit several countries without actually having to pack a bag! In addition to the excitement of going on a trip, the residents also had the opportunity to learn about new cultures, hear various types of music, taste foods from countries around the world and more,” said Kathleen Leypoldt, executive director of Cambridge Enhanced Senior Living. “This was a fun activity, but extremely educational as well.”

They first stopped in Jamaica on Monday, then went to Greece on Tuesday, Cuba on Wednesday and France on Thursday. And on Friday, they returned to the “home port” of Moorestown, NJ, where the community is located.

“We thought these countries would be popular because they each have quite distinctive cultures. We wanted to choose exciting ports that would allow us to plan a wide variety of activities so there was something for every resident to look forward to and enjoy,” said Leypoldt. “Every day, we had activities that truly helped to bring our ports to life for our residents.”

One of the main activities involved traveling around the countries—using virtual reality technology. “We offered VR tours of each country,” Leypoldt began. “In Cuba, we went to a classic car show. In France, we visited the Louvre. We saw the ruins in Athens, Greece, and took a general island tour of beautiful Jamaica.”

They used both VR goggles and projected the VR videos onto a screen, so residents could enjoy the experience whichever way they preferred.

“Many residents said they felt like they could reach out and really touch things,” Leypoldt continued. “Others who had previously visited some of these countries in real life said the VR experience made them feel like they were right back on those vacations.”

They also incorporated samba into the virtual cruise. “[It’s] our seated exercise class that combines rhythmic dance moves and music,” Leypoldt explained.

Food was another significant part of the travel experience.

“Everyone loves to eat!” Leypoldt said. “These countries offer delicious culinary flavors [that] our chefs were able to share with residents every day.”

Julia Jackson headshot

Julia Jackson, life enrichment director at Cambridge Enhanced Senior Living

In addition to meals inspired by the countries’ cuisines, the community also hosted daily happy hours.

“Our residents loved trying new foods at lunch each day, as well as [the] port-inspired happy hour snacks and signature cocktails,” explained Julia Jackson, life enrichment director at Cambridge Enhanced Senior Living. “This was truly a highlight of the cruise.”

A resident smiling and enjoying her pina colada in Jamaica

Residents enjoyed sipping on piña coladas in Jamaica

Happy hour consisted of ham and pineapple skewers with piña coladas in Jamaica, chips and tzatziki dip (each resident made their own) with limeade in Greece, pigs in blankets with mojitos in Cuba and crepes with wine in France. And when they returned to “home port,” they had caprese salad with ‘Jersey Fresh’ tomatoes.

They also had a “captain’s lunch” on Friday to celebrate the end of the virtual cruise.

Cambridge's chefs posing behind the "captain's lunch" meal

The captain’s lunch included carving stations, farm-to-table dishes, catered food and mini suitcases filled with candy

“We invited residents’ families to join us, and offered carving stations and farm-to-table food options,” said Leypoldt. “This was a great way to celebrate ‘Jersey Fresh’—with roasted vegetables from the beautiful farmlands of South Jersey.”

They also had some food catered for the “captain’s lunch.” Both the taquitos (the appetizer) and pie (the dessert) came from a couple local restaurants in Moorestown.

And, in staying with the travel theme, they gave out mini suitcases filled with candy to wrap up the celebration.

“My favorite thing [about the cruise] was watching the residents receive the passports we made for them. Every resident got a sticker in their passport at the end of the day, showing the day’s port. They really got a kick out of this creative activity,” Leypoldt said. “If we ever do something like this again, we may encourage residents, their families and staff to wear colors of the countries’ flags and hats/costumes.”

Additionally, the virtual cruise helped change some residents’ attitudes about the countries they visited. For example, Leypoldt noted that the community has some veterans who had served in Cuba, and those residents didn’t have the fondest memories of the country.

“But we gave them a different viewpoint [and] talked about the culture, the people and the food—and, of course, the cool cars,” she said. “This gave people a much different perspective of the country than they had before.”

Residents posing in front of a Greece backdrop

Residents had fun posing for photos at each location (including this Greece backdrop)

The theme of this year’s National Assisted Living Week was “Joyful Moments”—and, according to Leypoldt, there were definitely many of those during the virtual cruise.

“It was an amazing week, and the smiles on the residents’ faces told us everything we needed to know—everyone really enjoyed themselves,” she said.

Tom Grape headshot

The CEO Series: Tom Grape, Benchmark Senior Living

This year marks Benchmark Senior Living’s 25th anniversary serving its residents—and CEO and founder Tom Grape’s 25th year leading the senior living organization. In fact, even before Grape founded Benchmark back in 1997, he decided to make senior living his life’s work.

Now, the Massachusetts-based company has more than 60 communities across seven states in the northeast. Additionally, it’s won over 200 local, regional and national awards for its care, programs, workplace, design, overall quality and more. Senior Living News interviewed Grape to hear his thoughts about Benchmark’s 25th anniversary, plethora of awards and future plans.

Senior Living News: When you first founded Benchmark 25 years ago, did you expect that it would get this big? How has the company changed and grown over the past 25 years?

Tom Grape: I saw the long-term potential for assisted living early on. Prior to founding Benchmark, I was active for a decade in not only developing and managing assisted living communities, but [also] helping build the foundation for the industry and how states govern what was a relatively new industry. I worked closely with Massachusetts, for example, in writing the legislation for assisted living, and was active in other states and at the federal level, including serving as a founding board member and past chairman of what is now Argentum. In founding Benchmark, it was my intention to help as many seniors and their families as possible, by providing compassionate care and wonderful experiences. We never aimed to be the biggest—just the best! I am thrilled with the ways in which we’ve grown to help serve tens of thousands of residents and their family members over the past 25 years.

In terms of how we’ve changed, Benchmark has become more structured and methodical in our approach. Going from one community to 64 requires the right systems and processes in place to provide the highest level of service and support to residents and their family members. The foundation of our success, however, is the culture we’ve created for our associates. They are the lifeblood of each community and separate us from the competition. As such, we’ve always worked hard to create a respectful and supportive workplace—one that provides growth opportunities and clear career paths. It’s one of the many reasons that Benchmark is fortunate to be an employer of choice in this industry, including being named in The Boston Globe’s Top Places to Work 15 times straight.

SLN: Benchmark’s won so many awards for independent living, assisted living, memory care, top workplace, etc. Why do you think that Benchmark’s won all these awards?

TG: The more than 200 awards that Benchmark has earned is a direct reflection of our associates, who continually strive to “Be the Benchmark”—one of our core values. They are the ones providing the exceptional care and programming that makes us unique. Sure, amenities and beautiful buildings are great, but if the experience that surrounds those things isn’t enjoyable, then it doesn’t work. That is what has set us apart all these years and earned us awards in everything from innovations in mind and memory care to architecture, culinary and best places to work.

SLN: I understand that you had a gala earlier this year, and different celebrations at each community. Can you talk about the gala and the communities’ celebrations?

The 2022 company gala

Benchmark staff and associates enjoyed the 2022 company gala

TG: We hold a company gala every year—at least, when COVID doesn’t get in the way. We had a two-year hiatus, so the 2022 celebration—our 19th—was a very emotional night, as we once again gathered in person. Plus, we had this fantastic milestone of our 25th anniversary to celebrate. That said, every gala is a special night—one that associates have told me they will never forget. The events are held in landmark venues throughout the region, where we have the pleasure of hosting more than 300 people—including “service champion” associates from each community, their guests and colleagues. Eleven awards are given to individual frontline associates and communities. For many associates, this is their first formal event—complete with black tie and gowns. It is truly a magical evening filled with tender moments, laughter and happy tears. I should note that the anniversary celebrations extended throughout this year and into each community, where festive events reflecting each community’s culture and personality were held.

SLN: I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times that your employees are “hired for heart and trained for skill.” Can you talk about that mindset and what it means to you?

TG: Skills can be learned, but values and character can’t be taught—it’s something that’s inherent. There are those who truly derive fulfillment from helping other people and have a natural calling toward service. When it comes to hiring, we look for those qualities as our foundation, and provide the training necessary to be successful in their careers. We also provide the support our associates need for continued fulfillment and professional growth. Benchmark has an excellent workforce development program: Benchmark University. We are also collaborating more and more with local colleges, as well as area high schools. More of this needs to happen, though.

SLN: What are Benchmark’s future plans?

TG: We’re excited to be expanding into new markets, broadening our reach in existing markets and continuing to reinvest in our current communities. In 2024, we’ll be expanding into the greater Washington, D.C. area with our first community in Alexandria, VA, and into New York’s Hudson Valley. Benchmark will remain strategic in our growth, focusing on the Boston to D.C. corridor and making investments that are aligned with our business plan. Throughout our history, success has been measured in quality, not quantity. That means continuously strengthening an infrastructure that is responsive to changing resident needs, and providing them and their families with the experiences that differentiate Benchmark from our competitors. In parallel, Benchmark must remain an employer of choice by staying competitive in wages and benefits, maintaining a culture that recognizes and supports our associates and providing them with the tools to grow professionally and find rewarding career paths within our organization.

An overview of the different Catalyst components

Juniper Communities’ Catalyst Program

Most senior living communities have a lot of programs to help take care of their residents, but they can seem disconnected at times. Juniper Communities, which has 30 communities across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas and Colorado, is working to connect a number of their services through their health and well-being program, Catalyst.

Lynne Katzmann headshot

Lynne Katzmann, founder and CEO of Juniper Communities

“Catalyst is an umbrella that brings together three (formerly) separate disciplines within a community,” said Lynne Katzmann, founder and CEO of Juniper Communities. Those three disciplines are care, hospitality services and engagement.

“All of those three disciplines are things that we in senior housing have traditionally provided,” Katzmann continued. “What Catalyst does is says, ‘All of these things are important for well-being, so let us effectively unite them in a way so that we can better manage someone’s lifestyle’…It evolves the notion of senior living from one which is essentially a group of siloed services, to one which is integrated.”

And that’s why it’s called Catalyst. “When you catalyze a reaction, you’re effectively bringing together several different things…[and] activating them and they create something new,” Katzmann explained.

As part of Catalyst, Juniper piloted an integrated care model program called Connect 4 Life.

“The program showed that on the care side…if we use technology and a human being to breach what happens in a community and what happens with outside providers that are non-hospital/non-acute providers, we could dramatically impact health and well-being,” Katzmann said. “The way we would measure that [is] by the number of times people went to hospitals, by their average length of stay and by the number of readmissions.”

She explained that this is important for chronic illnesses. According to Katzmann, Catalyst manages multiple aspects of lifestyle services that impact chronic condition management—and Connect 4 Life showed them that they could manage specifically the health care component of chronic illness. This means that Catalyst can “keep people healthy longer, and reduce costs for health care to the system,” Katzmann said.

And that’s part of the reason why Catalyst was created—to manage chronic illness in terms of population health. However, it was mainly created due to changing consumer demands and preferences.

“At Juniper, we started the movement away from medical intervention to prevention, and well-being as being something the next generation of senior living customers want,” Katzmann said. “We need to move to a system that manages and promotes health, rather than treats illness.”

She explained that people no longer want to be isolated and solely taken care of; instead, they want to get what they need, but also live better for a longer time, so they can do the things they’ve always wanted to do.

“The program is designed to promote what we call wellspan, which is not just additional years of life (longer lifespan), but also more quality of life during those years,” Katzmann said.

And that ties into what she feels is the best part of Catalyst.

“It’s innovating to make the consumer experience better,” she said. “My hope is that Catalyst delivers to the consumer, but it also provides an acknowledgement in the community at large of the value that senior housing brings to older adults—both in terms of what we can do to keep them healthy, but also to allow them to live their best life as they age. I think Catalyst is the next generation of senior living; I see it as a natural evolution from the work that we’ve done, to what we need to become as the industry and consumer evolves.”

For now, Catalyst is just for residents, but they will eventually be offering it to people outside of Juniper—and integrating them into their communities. “We have lots of public space in a [senior living] community, and most older adults…don’t mind being integrated into the community at large; in fact, they relish it. By opening memberships to older adults in the community, we change the tenor…and we use our spaces differently for the communities in which our buildings are located,” Katzmann explained. “It’s offering something out to the community in order to create a broader, more inclusive community, which supports well-being among all people.”

In fact, they’ve already started to involve the larger community into Juniper’s programs—especially when it comes to engagement.

Katzmann explained that engagement used to consist of very basic activities, such as bingo and Bible study. But about 15 years ago, they changed their approach. “We started looking at who people are, who they were earlier in their life and what they’ve wanted, and began to plan activities that [met] those needs or desires,” Katzmann said. “The old approach was doing for people; in this case, we are doing with people. The engagement model has shifted.”

However, those activities were still primarily done within the senior living community. Now, the new version of activities involves the broader community.

“We do engagement as integrating with the community at large, providing a whole host of different options for people to engage,” Katzmann said.

A board showing the Singin' in the Rain cast

The cast for Singin’ in the Rain consisted of Juniper residents

She added that the involvement could be for any dimension of wellness, such as vocational, intellectual or artistic. For example, on the artistic side, Juniper’s been putting on Broadway musicals (such as Singin’ in the Rain) in their communities.

“We go out into the community; we find a director, musicians and volunteers who are willing to come in; and we cast a play,” Katzmann said. “We cast them from among our members and also some community people.”

She explained that in Mary Poppins, for example, they casted kids from the community to perform alongside their residents.

The Singin' in the Rain show

Residents performing Singin’ in the Rain

Then, after weeks of rehearsals, they put on a show. “A lot of the older adults can’t move as well as some of the Broadway dancers can, but the show is vibrant and allows people to find new ways to engage—not only by doing things they haven’t done before (singing, acting, doing set design, whatever it may be), but also [by] making new friends around the art [and] from the community at large,” Katzmann said.

Outside of the plays, they also have a poetry group, fitness opportunities, a community garden program and more.

“It’s all over the board; it depends on what people want,” Katzmann said. “It varies from building to building, but it’s about building connections within the community at large that create a community experience.”